Saturday, January 09, 2010

"Mind & Spirit" -> Why The Little Guy Wins


The most problematic issue that I've face at my work over the last 20 years of being in corporate America is the propensity for social loafing. Now social loafing is one of those things that simply don't need to be described once you figure out what it is saying.

If you want to get a good sense of the connection to Christianity, all that you need to look at is Paul's writings in 2 Thessalonians 3:

"In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers, to keep away from every brother who is idle and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat."

We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat."



Social loafing is simply the normal human reaction for people to back off working hard when they are part of a group. The person to first document this behavior was Maximilien Ringelmann in the early 20th century. To this day, some social loading is considered an important part of the Ringlemann effect.

To understand the entirety of the Ringlemann effect, we need to understand what Ringlemann did, and why it is so applicable to group dynamics. It explains why major corporations are not the preferred method of employment.

Very simply he ran and experiment where he had his subjects pull on a rope. He then measureed the pull of that individual. Once he was done with measuring the individuals, he would place all of the individuals into teams and have them pull on the rope.



Now the only numbers that Ringlemann test was 1, 2, 3, and 8, but I think the chart is probably pretty close.  If we are in a group of 2 or 3 people, a lot of work is done.  It is as soon as we get to more than 3 people, we see the group effort really start to fall off.

Ringlemann, himself, had some idea of what was happening, but he thought perhaps the groups were losing effort due to lack of coordination.  As the researchers have done more and more work (Ingham, Levinger, Graves, & Peckham, 1974), they discover that in things like pulling rope, the biggest issue is that people simply stop working as hard because there are more people around to do the work.

Eric Weiser, at Curry College,did a nice chart that shows the individual drop in effort from several studies.



The problem with most of these types of studies is that they cannot perfectly predict what will happen in real life.  However, good fundamental thought as gone into this.  Now that you understand the idea of social loafing, we can look at the roles that the various people can play.

1a.  The free rider:  This is the person that decides to back off on the hard work.  Fredrick Taylor, the father of scientific management, called this soldiering.  Taylor, in his day, recognized and categorized many reasons for this behavior in the common work force.

1b.  The infected free rider.  Free riders are a habit, and not something that is done every once in a while.  These are the individuals that may have run into individuals in the past that have pushed them to achieve, and this was a bad event for them.  If this was a confrontation, the individual may turn into an infected free rider.  This is an individual that is trying to get back at a corporation or a manager.  I call them an infected free rider because they tend to spread their mindset throughout the group and get other people sick.  If the free rider backs off a bit, the infect free rider can actually lower the output of a group by being in it and being counterproductive.

2.  The sucker effect:  These are the formally hard working people in the group that look at the free rider, and they say to themselves, "why am I working so hard?  This guy isn't working, and he is getting paid the same as me.  I'm a sucker, so I'll back off."

3.  The starter and pusher.  These are individuals who just are wired differently.  Generally, they are highly motivated and want to achieve something, therefore, they are willing to engage in conflict to get something done.  The point is that they are extremely rare, and can cause either great harm or good.

4.  The credit taker.  Often, inside of these groups, not only do people not do equal work, but they start to realize that the group as a whole may be judged.  In this case, what starts to happen is that individuals will start to position themselves so that they can receive credit for whatever goodness does happen out of the group.  The other people in the group, knowing that they will not receive the credit, then back out of providing their full effort.

The last role is especially important, the researchers say that there is one way to ensure that all members of the group work more toward the value of their individual contributions is to have each member recognized for the effort that they put in.  As an example, the swimmer relay is often used to prove that groups can have as good if not better performance.  It is not uncommon for individuals to perform their best effort while on a team.  However, in this case, each member's input is carefully monitored, and know that their team mates are depending on them only increases their effort.  The key is that although they are on a team, they are seen individually.

Ask we understand these groups, we start to understand why business can be so turbulent, and why groups can under perform so dramatically.  If you get 8 people together, the output of the group is going to drop closer to the output of 6 individuals.  Then you have some people that are going hard, and others that are showing a variability in their effort.

If you are unfortunate enough to have a starter and a pusher, the group will either turn into a high performance group, or it will self destruct.  The problem is that starter/pushers push themselves, and if they are an extrovert, they will start to push other people.  The starter/pusher present a unique issue for us.  You would think that a starter/pusher would be considered as a positive.  However, to understand why he can be self destructive is understand why people freeload.

The reason that people back off in effort is that it is uncomfortable to put out a lot of effort.  So, to go back to the beginning of this post, the question should not be "why do people loaf in groups?"  This should be very obvious.  They loaf because this is the most comfortable thing for them to do.

The real question is "why do individuals excel when they are alone?"

The obvious answer is "because the effort that somebody puts out shows their self image."  The person works hardest by themselves because they know that other people will judge them.  This explains why effort falls off in groups.  If the individual believes that they cannot be measured, then they have no motivation to do better.

This is why the credit taker is so discouraging to a group.  Since they suck up the available credit, they will heavily demotivate the other individuals.  So, to go back to the pusher, he can be perceived by the rest of the group as a credit taker.  So, he will instantly get some push back that he/she is simply giving orders because they want to get credit for whatever the group does.  The other instant thing that will happen is that the pusher is going to try to get the individual to perform in a zone that they do not want to perform.  So, they are afraid that they are not going to get the credit, and they are working harder than they want.

This often sets up an extreme amount of conflict.  The good news is that there will be change in performance in the group.  The bad news is that a free rider, which was performing at 75% of their effort, may suddenly tank to 30% or 40% effort.  In today's knowledge work, you cannot force somebody to work hard.  You can hope to change their mind set, but if you fail, you run the risk of turning a free rider into an infected free rider.

So, here is my advice as we get to the end of my post.  If you are a high performance individual, generally you are far better off working in organizations that are small.  At the very least, you need to work for somebody who is a starter and a pusher.  A couple of starter/pushers can be an awesome team inside of a company.  Generally, because their are two of them, they can watch each others back.

If you are a free rider, I guess that you'll never have gotten to this part of my post, because you felt uncomfortable.  In the last couple of years, I've spotted a couple of people that are clearly loafing.  They are very nice individuals.  However, this will upset me.  I feel that I've been suckered by these individuals.  In both of these cases, as I've had a heated discussion with them, I basically called them lazy.

Now this is something that I should not have done.  And it certainly wasn't very Christian of me.

However, in both case the individuals went speechless and hung up on me.  In both cases, it was extremely obvious, they knew that I hit it square on the head, and it hurt them.

But in both cases, they didn't face reality, and I don't think I bought myself anything.

1 comment:

Hilary said...

Thanks for the interesting post, Uncle Ted!
-Hilary